Queen of the kitchen

From south­ern China to the Amer­i­can South, Huali Dong serves cui­sine that re­flects her iden­tity as Amer­i­can and as Chi­nese

The Sentinel-Record - HER - Hot Springs - - Contents - Story by Lara Far­rar, pho­tog­ra­phy by Grace Brown

Huali Dong never imag­ined she would work in the restau­rant busi­ness when she left China for the United States at age 19.

Now she is the owner of World Buf­fet, a Chi­nese restau­rant in Hot Springs that she and her hus­band opened in 2010.

Dong’s fam­ily forked over about $50,000 for a stranger, some­one from Ja­pan, to ar­range a visa and for her to fly to the U.S. from Fu­jian, a coastal prov­ince in south­ern China known for its pro­duc­tion of tea and its prox­im­ity to Tai­wan. Such smug­glers are known as “snake­heads” in China and for a cou­ple of decades around the turn of the cen­tury helped count­less Chi­nese from Fu­jian en­ter the U.S.

Dong says she re­mem­bers lit­tle about the jour­ney, ex­cept that she “wor­ried about a lot.”

“It took a lot of time for my par­ents to have the money to pay for that,” she said. Her par­ents, who re­mained in Fu­jian, raised fruit on a small plot of land on the side of a hill out­side of the vil­lage where she grew up.

Af­ter a stop in Thai­land and then Tokyo, she fi­nally landed on the doorstep of her un­cle’s house in Brook­lyn. It was 1999. Decades be­fore, her un­cle ar­rived in Chi­na­town in New York City from Fu­jian. He spoke no English, slept in a crawlspace un­der the restau­rant where he worked and en­dured fits of anger from his Amer­i­can man­ager who yelled at him in frus­tra­tion be­cause he could not un­der­stand what to do. He was 16. Like her un­cle, Dong also spoke lit­tle English. But un­like the time when her un­cle ar­rived in the U.S., some­time around 1949 when Com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies over­took China, Dong en­coun­tered a well-oiled net­work of peo­ple from Fu­jian liv­ing across the U.S. who helped her find work.

In a 2014, The New Yorker mag­a­zine pub­lished an ar­ti­cle de­tail­ing the phe­nom­e­non of the im­mi­grants from Fu­jian and how they have come to own Chi­nese restau­rants lo­cated in ma­jor metropoli­tan ar­eas, like Man­hat­tan, to ru­ral ar­eas as far away as Arkansas.

“In the U.S., the Fu­jianese took restau­rant jobs, learned the trade, and saved up to buy out own­ers or to open restau­rants of their own,” the ar­ti­cle said. “The restau­rants were con­cen­trated in big cities, but, as com­pe­ti­tion grew, en­ter­pris­ing im­mi­grants moved away, in search of greater prof­its.”

From New York, Dong quickly found a job in a restau­rant in Chicago. When she moved there, it was the first time she had ever seen snow.

“When I opened my eyes, it was all white,” she said. “In my life, I never saw snow.”

Dong soon moved to other cities, end­ing up in a restau­rant in Pennsylvania that was op­er­ated by a

teacher she knew from grade school back in Fu­jian.

She later re­turned to Man­hat­tan to work in a Ja­panese restau­rant owned by a fam­ily friend. She says she spent ev­ery wak­ing hour in the restau­rant, learn­ing about dif­fer­ent types of fish from the Ja­panese chef, learn­ing how to man­age fi­nances, how to run the front of the busi­ness, how to man­age staff.

Via what Dong de­scribes as a very ran­dom turn of events, she con­nected with a man who was once her neigh­bor in her vil­lage back in China. He asked her to marry him. She said she was not sure. “One day I woke up, felt sad,” she said. “I was kind of lonely in the United States. It had been snow­ing and two old peo­ple were in front of me help­ing each other walk on the snow. I was be­hind them, and thought, ‘When I get old, I want to be like that.’” She and her hus­band mar­ried shortly af­ter. His fam­ily owned Chi­nese restau­rants in Arkansas, so, in 2004, the cou­ple moved here, and be­gan to open their own eater­ies. Dong de­scribes the cui­sine as Amer­i­can Chi­nese food. She says that she and her hus­band stud­ied the menus of other restau­rants owned by Fu­jianese and in­cor­po­rated some of their own twists to the menu, such as spices from Mex­ico or less oil and sugar for health­ier cui­sine.

Dong says she likes Hot Springs be­cause she feels like it is a safe place to raise her two chil­dren and that peo­ple in the com­mu­nity are wel­com­ing.

“In New York, peo­ple are too busy,” she said. “There may not be big build­ings or those beau­ti­ful neon signs in the night­time, but for me, it is quiet and com­fort­able and has bet­ter air, bet­ter wa­ter and bet­ter peo­ple. That is what I like.”

Dong has only vis­ited China once since she left, and now that she has vir­tu­ally no fam­ily there (her par­ents have since im­mi­grated and live in Man­hat­tan), she says she has al­most no de­sire to ever re­turn.

“[In Amer­ica] you work. You make what­ever you have. It is fair,” she said. “I do re­mem­ber when I was lit­tle in China, the man liv­ing across from us, how hard he worked, but he stays so poor.”

As far as her cul­tural iden­tity, Dong says that is some­thing she is still try­ing to fig­ure out. Her chil­dren speak lit­tle Chi­nese. They still cel­e­brate some tra­di­tional hol­i­days, like Chi­nese New Year. They cook Chi­nese food at home.

“Which coun­try am I from? I don’t know,” she said. “I am kind of like a lit­tle bit lost.”

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